France facing a more infectious but less deadly coronavirus strain, claims top scientist

Country tops 12,000 cases a day but just 50 on average are dying each day

French medicine professor Didier Raoult wears a disposable face mask as he stands before a Senate commission on the management of the Covid-19 pandemic by French State institutions on September 15, 2020 in Paris. / AFP / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT
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The French population faces a smaller threat from the coronavirus wave sweeping the country as the original strain has mutated into a more survivable version, a leading scientist has suggested.

At the start of the summer holidays in mid-July, France was experiencing just 500 infections a day but in late August this jumped to 7,000 a day. In the last three days it has averaged 12,400.

By contrast, France's death rate is currently averaging 53 a day compared to almost 1,000 a day at the height of infections in April.

Extensive examination of new mutant strains has shown that while the virus has become more contagious it is apparently less dangerous meaning fewer hospital admissions.

France’s leading research hospital into infectious diseases has identified the mutations through collecting extensive data, said Didier Raoult, head of IHU Mediterranée Infection in Marseilles.

Analysis of Covid-19 tests in the last few months had shown seven different mutations, Mr Raoult told the French senate.

“We compared 100 cases from July with 100 before. They are less severe, so something is happening with this virus, which makes it different,” said Raoult, 68, a professor of microbiology. “The mutations we have are a rather degraded version of the initial form. At least that is our impression.”

One mutation might have arrived in Marseilles after ferry crossings restarted with North Africa in June then disappeared again in August, mutating into another form of the virus.

Mutating to become less deadly is something viruses sometimes naturally evolve in order to continue in existence, much like the flu virus.

The French findings might explain that despite the second wave hitting Europe there has been fewer hospital admissions than earlier in the year.

However, Prof Raoult has previously attracted controversy after he promoted using hydroxychloroquine, the antimalaria drug hailed by Donald Trump as a cure for Covid.

Prof Raoult’s claim that the virus is mutating has also been questioned by scientists including France’s chief government scientific advisor. But the claims have been backed up by significant amounts of data by researchers in Marseilles. The same hospital also rapidly developed a coronavirus test in February that led to the city having a very low infection rates.

But with people heading to the South of France for their summer holidays the infections have spread significantly among under 40s and Marseilles has become a coronavirus hotspot.

It is now under tough restrictions including the closure of bars and restaurants just after midnight and public gatherings restricted to only 10 people.